A participable cross

crosses

This should perhaps be included in my ongoing thoughts on Fleming Rutledge’s demanding, and rewarding, book on the Crucifixion. In a previous post I claimed that ‘if you can’t join Christ on the Cross, you’ve got the wrong Cross.” It was a question I asked against the backdrop of readings of the Cross that construe it as a place of incommunicable suffering, a place where God suffers godforsakenness, where he pours out upon Jesus the wrath we deserve. There are good reasons for thinking this is not what is transpiring on the Cross, and one reason, I argued, was that if the Cross is where God abandons Christ to godforsakenness it becomes impossible to see the Cross as something Christians are to participate in and be united to.

Paul (Phil 3.8-11) wants to “participate in Christ’s suffering, becoming like him in his death,” even to “fill up in his flesh what is lacking in Christ’s sufferings” (Col 1.24), a desire particularly incomprehensible if Paul believes the Cross in substitutionary terms, as least as I’m familiar with those terms. The author of Hebrews (Heb 13.13) instructs us to “go to Christ outside the city, bearing the disgrace he bore…for I will never leave you nor forsake you.” The logic of dependent clause is shocking: Go join Christ on the Cross “for God will never leave you nor forsake you.” For the same reason already noted this too becomes an impossible instruction to follow if the Cross is where godforsakenness and estrangement are borne by God on our behalf. In the penal substitutionary sense Christ suffers what we don’t have to (viz., wrath and godforsakenness) in which case what are we bearing or participating in when we join Christ on the Cross? More strangely, Hebrews instructs believers to join Christ on the Cross with a comforting assurance (“I will never leave or forsake you”) the denial of which substitutionary models of the Cross make by supposing Christ is in fact godforsaken and estranged.

Fleming’s book proceeds with a key question: What sort of predicament must you and I be in that we should require the crucifixion of God? She suggests that the severity of the Cross requires us to posit a human predicament equally severe. Fair enough. But another question of equal consequence is this: What really transpires on the Cross if the gospel compels us to join Christ on it, if the salvation it extends becomes ours through participating in its sufferings? I don’t see Rutledge, or Hart for that matter, exploring the biblical call to participate in Christ’s suffering as a key to understanding that suffering. Though Rutledge briefly discusses the Rom 6 passage I’ll refer to below, as well as Heb 13.13, she doesn’t ask this question.

If we are to participate in Christ’s sufferings, become like him in his death, and bear the disgrace he bore, then it has to be the case that those sufferings are communicable, participable. But if Christ bears a divine judgment instead of us, if he suffers the dereliction of godforsakenness and estrangement as wrath – i.e., if he suffers the fate we are saved from – then there’s nothing to participate in. We can at best be thankful spectators. I may simply be way off in my thinking, but I suspect more work needs to be done to see if there’s a way sensibly to construe the Cross both as Christ substituted in our place and as him suffering as our place.

That said, let me quote from Mark Heim again (Saved From Sacrifice, 229f) because he makes the same point from a passages that I previously overlooked: Rom 6.3-5.

Baptized into His DeathMichelangelo,_Crucifix
Paul says “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom 6:3-5).

Baptism is the ritual entry into the Christian community. This initiation is an act of identification with Christ and his death as an unjust scapegoated victim. It was common for initiations in the ancient world to involve sacrifice and bloodshed. Baptism does not. Consistent with belief in the cross as a sacrifice to end sacrifice, and a death “once for all,” each baptized person enters into what is in effect a reversed sacrificed, looking not to share in the benefits of an offered victim but to walk in the newness of life of one who overcame scapegoating. The baptized are to be united with Christ in a resurrection like his, participating in that new creation. Peter preaches in Acts that when God raised up Jesus, he sent him “to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways” (Acts 3:26). This bears on our peculiar individual sins, but certainly it applies with special force to our shared, collective wicked ways.

We were not actually killed with Jesus, but we associate ourselves with that death through baptism, aligning ourselves with the victim, not the persecutors. In this act we step into the place of the sacrificed one, at the same time identifying with Christ and with every other member of this new community, who has likewise been “buried with Christ…”

If baptism is a dramatic identification with Jesus’ death, it throws us back to the tension we have repeatedly discussed. Is this an identification with the sacrificial intent of those who persecuted Jesus or with the parallel but opposite divine purpose to end sacrifice? The description of the new life that is to follow on baptism clearly opts for the latter. Sacrificial language itself is redefined to this end.

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Paul in Rom 6 makes essentially the same point he makes in Phil 3 and Col 1. The Cross (never without the resurrection – Rom 6) names the mode of our participation in Christ. We participate in his suffering, become like him in his death, and now in the language of Rom 6 “are untied with him” in his death, “buried with him,” etc. So at the very least, if we define the Cross as a kind of suffering from which we are excluded because Christ suffers there a judgment we deserve but are freed from, have we not placed the Cross out of the reach of participation? It would seem so.

I don’t think Paul could be any more explicit: the Cross isn’t the Incarnate God dying instead of us (however legitimately talk of ‘substitution’ may expresses a perspective on an aspect of what’s happening — and I haven’t seen ‘substitution’ described in that sense anywhere), it is the God-Man dying ahead of us — showing us how to die, how life is found in a fallen world, and also how to suffer redemptively as a victim of the world’s violence for the sake of its salvation. So instead of being a place defined by godforsakenness and estrangement (except so far as the world considers the violence they do to us evidence of our godforsakenness), the Cross is where all estranging narratives, including narratives of the Cross as estrangement, are exposed as false precisely because they do not offer us a suffering we can participate in, a death to which we can conform.

The Crucifixion—Part 1

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddI found myself reading through portions of Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion this week after reading it (or did it read me?) last year. It’s a dense and beautiful work that left me feeling the whole work would be diminished if a single phrase were omitted. It reveals a lifetime of intense reflection and pastoral sensibility that will, I hope, occupy me for as long.

That said, there are a few unpleasant surprises. There is some straw at the heart of her objection to a so-called “forgiveness is enough” reading of the Cross. I don’t anyone is ever guilty of actually believing that forgiveness, and forgiveness alone, is enough and that this explains the Cross. Her dismissal of Girard is also odd. She admits to having never read him and to relying on the criticism of others. That would be understandable if it were somebody like me she was disagreeing with. But it cannot succeed in the case of Girard. She also claims that both Girard and his interpreter James Alison too narrowly interpret the Cross as delivering victims while failing to recognize that victimizers are also in need of deliverance. This is a surprising misunderstanding of both Girard and Alison, since both (Alison at some length) explicitly address how the Cross embraces victimizers as well. I hope to get around to these points, and to other wonderful aspects of her book, in a later post.

What I’d like to do here is share a portion of David Hart’s reflections on Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo (“A Gift Exceeding Every Debt,” Pro Ecclesia 7.3). I share it here because Rutledge appeals to Hart’s appreciation for Anselm. I suppose I’ve done to Anselm what I just complained Rutledge does to Girard – dismiss him based on what others say. But I want to thank both Hart and Rutledge for encouraging me to rethink Anselm. Hart writes:

Nor indeed is there any suggestion made in the Cur Deus Homo that God is appeased by the “penal” death of Christ (Harnack is quite right about this, though disturbingly wrong about its implications). Anselm certainly depicts Christ’s sacrifice as an offering that, in the end, “secures” forgiveness by satisfying the demands of divine righteousness, on our behalf; but, then, how far does his version of the story of salvation actually differ on this matter from its more remote precursors? When Lossky uses Athanasius to call attention to the divergence of Anselm’s model from its patristic predecessors, even though he knows that many of the themes of the Cur Deus Homo are already to be found in De Incarnatione, there is some slight irony, it must be said. At one juncture in De Incarnatione, Athanasius, lamenting the loss of humanity’s original beauty in the fall, argues that redemption was necessitated by God’s agathotes (consistency, righteousness, honor, glory), which requires the maintenance and execution of his twin decrees that, on the one hand, humanity will share in the divine life and that, on the other, death must fall upon the transgressors of holy law; to prevent the second decree from defeating the first, guilt must be removed from humanity through the exhaustion of the power of death in Christ’s sacrifice. The hold death had upon us was just, says Athanasius, and it would be monstrous were God’s decree that sin shall merit death to prove false; but it would be unworthy of God’s goodness were he to let his handiwork come to nothing. Nor could God simply accept our repentance as just recompense for our offense, as repentance would neither suffice to guard God’s integrity nor serve to restore our wounded nature. In his body, then, Christ exhausts the wrath of the law, and offers satisfaction for our debt. Already present in Athanasius’s account is the very story whose inner shape Anselm will, in a moment of intense critical reflection, attempt to grasp as necessity. Already, in Athanasius’s theology, one finds the language of punishment used, but subordinate to the narrative of complete and unmerited forgiveness, and the language of law employed to describe the depths of an infinite mercy. As it is with Athanasius, so it is with Anselm. Far from an arbitrary arrangement of jurisprudential transactions calculated to effect a forensic reconciliation between humanity and God, the atonement as Cur Deus Homo depicts it is an assumption of solidarity with us by an infinitely merciful God in order to fulfill in us that beatitude intended in our creation, by accomplishing on our behalf what, in our impotence to do good and in his unwillingness to employ unjust means, could never otherwise have been brought to pass.

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God’s order is preserved through his own assumption of the conditions of estrangement; his mercy is imparted in the acceptance of Christ’s voluntary death; the highest law of God’s inviolable justice is boundless mercy; God’s sovereignty necessitates his condescension; the goodness that condemns the sinner requires that sin be forgiven. This is not because Anselm sees God as divided against himself: rather, he has come to see that Christ’s sacrifice is ultimately not an economic gesture (meant to insure the stability of a universe founded upon unyielding laws of equity and retribution), but belongs instead to the infinite motion of God’s love, in which justice and mercy are one and can never be divided one from the other; he has recognized Christ’s act as an infinite motion towards the Father, belonging to the mystery of the Trinity, simply surpassing all the arrangements of debt and violence by which a sinful humanity seeks to calculate its “justice.” Consequently, the only “necessity” Anselm demonstrates in the drama of salvation is an inward intelligibility to the mind grasped by faith. And indeed, in the end, Anselm merely restates the oldest patristic model of atonement of all: that of recapitulation. Granted, he rejects simple typological or aesthetic recapitulation, the correspondence of motifs shared between the narratives of the first and last Adam, but he is still concerned with recapitulation in essentially the same sense as is Irenaeus: Christ takes up the human story and tells it correctly, by giving the correct answer to God’s summons; in his life and death he renarrates humanity according to its true pattern of loving obedience, humility, and charity, thus showing all human stories of righteousness, honor, and justice to be tales of violence, falsehood, and death; and in allowing all of humanity to be resituated through his death within the retelling of their story, Christ restores them to communion with the God of infinite love who created them for his pleasure. And when Christ recapitulates humanity, he shows the gravity and terror inherent in posing his form over against the violence of the world of sin; he “satisfies” all the requirements of that form by living out his obedience to the Father under the conditions imposed by a sinful order of power, which conditions bring about his death. It must not be overlooked that for Anselm it is not Christ’s suffering as such that is redemptive (the suffering merely repeats sin’s endlessly repeated and essential gesture), but rather his innocence; he recapitulates humanity by passing through all the violences of sin and death, rendering to God the obedience that is his due, and so transforms the event of his death into an occasion of infinite blessings for those to whom death is condign. Christ’s death does not even effect a change in God’s attitude towards humanity; God’s attitude never alters: he desires the salvation of his creatures, and will not abandon them even to their own cruelties.

Even here, then, in the text that most notoriously expounds a penal logic of atonement, the idea of sacrificial penance is subverted from within: as Christ’s sacrifice belongs not to an economy of credit and exchange, but to the trinitarian motion of love, it is given entirely as gift, and must be seen as such: a gift given when it should not have needed to be given again, by God, and at a price that we, in our sin, imposed upon him. As an entirely divine action, Christ’s sacrifice merely draws creation back into the eternal motion of divine love for which it was fashioned. The violence that befalls Christ belongs to our order of justice, an order overcome by his sacrifice, which is one of peace. And simply by continuing to be the God he is, and through the sheer “redundancy” of the good that flows from the infinite gesture of his love — which is a generosity in excess of all calculable economy — God undoes the sacrificial logic of our bondage; his gift remains a gift to the end, despite all our efforts to convert it into debt. This is the unanticipated grace of Easter. Whether one chooses, of course, to follow Nietzsche in the Genealogy of Morals and see the redundancy of Christ’s merit, inasmuch as it avails for salvation, as an infinite multiplication of debt depends upon one’s prejudices. As for Anselm, though, the primordiality of the gift is the truth of Christ’s paschal donation: the gift God gives in creation continues to be given again, ever more fully, in defiance of all rejection, disobedience, injustice, violence, and indifference; there is no division between justice and mercy in God, on Anselm’s account, because both belong already to the giving of this gift:

The mercy of God, which seemed to you to be lost when we were considering God’s justice and humanity’s sin, we find now to be so great and so in accord with justice, that neither a greater nor a more just can be thought. For what possibly could be understood to be more merciful than that God the Father should say to the sinner — damned to eternal torment and having no means whereby to redeem himself — “Take my Only-begotten and offer him for yourself”; and that the Son himself should say, “Take me and redeem yourself”? For thus they speak, when they call us and lead us to Christian faith. What indeed were more just, than that he — to whom is given a price exceeding every debt, if only given with the love which he is truly owed — should put aside every debt?

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Now, for a somewhat contrary take on Anselm, see Mark Heim’s thoughts here. Heim largely agrees with these positive features of Anselm’s work. But, if you’ll check out this link to Heim, you’ll see where he thinks Anselm makes an important mistake.

It’s so interesting to stand between Heim and Hart on Cur Deus Homo because when you take Anselm out of equation altogether and simply compare the statements each makes about what is transpiring on the Cross (the absence of any violence in God, the falsehood of the notion that Christ’s suffering exhausts some infinite balance of suffering that we deserve, the unchanging nature of God’s forgiving attitude, the justice and goodness of love’s submitting to what our notion of justice does to Jesus), they’re in agreement.

I particularly like the ‘narrative’ shape of Hart’s explanation. Christ takes up “the human story and tells it correctly.” He “renarrates humanity” according to its true pattern. The Cross is what we do to this story. But Christ “resituates” all humanity “within the retelling of their story.” The deliverance wrought by Christ on our behalf is the revealing of humanity’s true story within the false narratives that enslave us. Yes, that true story has to be told in terms of the entirety of Christ’s life, death and resurrection, but the death must be such that it delivers the new and true story within the very text of our false narratives. Christ’s own capacities for meaning-making have to embrace the depths of the human predicament. I have Marilyn McCord Adams (Christ & Horrors) in mind here; she writes, “By catching up our horror-participation into a relationship that is incommensurately good for us, Divine participation in horrors defeats their prima facie life-ruining powers.”

I’ll have to return to this in a second post. I’ll just say here that what is objectionable (not that Rutledge believes this – but neither did Girard and neither does Alison, hence her curious disagreement with them) is the notion, which can be heard in pulpits ever Sunday, that someone has to die for God to forgive us. This is a mistake, and more egregious, I should think, than all the attempts to reduce Christianity to forgiveness (which I don’t think anyone actually believes) because plenty of Christians actually do believe the Cross makes it possible for God to forgive us. On the contrary, however, it is because God forgives us and wishes us to know and live in the truth of this that there even is a Cross. The Cross condemns all crosses, for all God gives (love, acceptance, forgiveness) is ours antecedent to the Cross. The Cross, then, is not the price God requires to extend these to us, it is the price we require to believe they are freely given (something I don’t sense Rutledge would agree to).

The Hart of Rene Girard—Part 2

DBH

In his critique of Rene Girard (see Part 1), David Bentley Hart argues that Girard draws too absolute a distinction between the sacrificial violence of scapegoating and the non-violent forms of sacrifice present within Israel’s faith and history. For Girard, Hart points out, to speak of Christ’s death “as a sacrifice” legitimizes sacred violence. One can see this in Girard’s reading of the book of Hebrews as a violent, and so false, reading of the gospel whose sacrificial motifs implicate God in the persecution of the victim. Hart argues that Girard fails to appreciate how foundational the language of “sacrifice” is to God’s covenant with Israel (a covenant which Christ fulfills), and that Christianity’s soteriological vision is too bound up with sacrificial themes and motifs to dismiss such language. Not all talk of sacrifice describes an economy of exchange and propitiation that Girard rightly seeks to expose as violent.

Though Girard doesn’t intend as much, still in the end, Hart contends, one is left with a savior who is more gnostic than the Jew who fulfills and mediates Israel’s covenants in history, a savior who establishes not a way of being in the world but a path of escape from it, and so a savior who gives victims “no story to tell” within history. Though Hart agrees with Girard’s overall intent to establish a truly benevolent, non-violent view of God and God’s redemptive presence in the world, he feels Girard’s methodology is too negatively shaped by the force of prophetic fervor. Hart goes on to offer, beautifully as always, a non-violent reading of the Cross as sacrifice.

I’d like to respond a bit to Hart’s criticisms of Girard, because while some of his criticisms could describe the early Girard (given the texts Hart depends on), they are not true of the late Girard, as I’ll show. At the time Hart assessed Girard, Girard would have agreed with Hart’s non-violent account of Christ’s death, even as sacrifice, as being consistent with his overall theories on mimetic desire and sacred violence.

In an interview with Rebecca Adams (“Violence, Difference, Sacrifice: A Conversation with Rene Girard,” Religion & Literature [Vol. 25, No. 2] Summer, 1993), subsequent to the works of Girard that Hart basis his critique upon but prior to the publication of Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite (BOI|2003), Girard addresses the core of Hart’s concerns. The interview is quite revealing.

Take for example Hart’s mention of Girard’s dismissal of the book of Hebrews (and ‘sacrificial’ language as such) as a violent reading of the Cross implicating God in persecuting the victim. There’s no doubt this is Girard’s view in Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1978 in French, 1987 in English). In that book (228) Girard writes:

According to this Epistle, there is certainly a difference between Christ’s Passion and the sacrifices that have gone before. But this difference is still defined within the context of the sacrificial, and consequently the real essence of the sacrificial is never examined. Like all the variants that are to follow, this first attempt at a sacrificial theology is based on analogies between the form of the Passion and the form of all other sacrifices, but it allows the essential feature to escape.

Certainly the believer rightly sees an enormous difference between Christianity and the sacrifices of the Old Testament. But he can give no justification for this difference as long as he continues to define everything in sacrificial terms…As long as the Christian difference is defined in sacrificial terms, as all former differences among religions have been defined, it will eventually be effaced.

To sum up: the Epistle to the Hebrews re-enacts what is re-enacted in all earlier formulations of sacrifice. It discharges human violence, but to a lesser degree. It restates God’s responsibility for the death of the victim….

But when asked about this by Adams in 1993, Girard repents of “having scapegoated Hebrews” and all talk of “sacrifice.” Here’s a portion of the conversation:

Girard: I agree entirely with you that there are problems with my treatment of Hebrews. It’s a problem of language: the language of the “last sacrifice,” even though in Things Hidden I say, ultimately, that the word “sacrifice” doesn’t matter that much. But I say it too briefly. And I give too much importance to that word. That’s one of the reasons for my misinterpreting Hebrews. I was aware of these great things in it, especially in the quotation of the Psalms.

Adams: You’re saying that you dismissed Hebrews too quickly?

Girard: Yes, sure. I was completely wrong. And I don’t know what happened to me, really, because I was pretty careful not to do that, generally.

Adams: Hebrews is one of the main sources, of course, for sacrificial theology. And so it deserves careful treatment.

Girard: Yes, it deserves careful treatment. And its concept of the “last sacrifice” can be very easily interpreted, made to fit, the view I propose. There is no serious problem. But in Things Hidden I ask Hebrews to use the same vocabulary I do, which is just plain ridiculous.

Adams: We’ll look for further work on Hebrews, then?

Girard: That’s true. That’s one part of Things Hidden that I would like to change.

Adams: Let’s continue then with the question of “sacrifice” as a developing and fluid concept.

Girard: I say at the end of Things Hidden – and I think this is the right attitude to develop – that the changes in the meaning of the word “sacrifice” contain a whole history, religious history, of mankind. So when we say “sacrifice” today inside a church or religious context, we mean something which has nothing to do with primitive religion. Of course I was full of primitive religion at the time of the writing of the book, and my main theme was the difference between primitive religion and Christianity, so I reserved the word “sacrifice” completely for the primitive.

Adams: So you scapegoated Hebrews within the canon of Scripture.

Girard: So I scapegoated Hebrews and I scapegoated the word “sacrifice.” I assumed it should have some kind of constant meaning, which is contrary to the mainstream of my own thinking…

girardWith respect to the notion that mimetic desire is inherently acquisitive and violent, Girard makes it clear that he always believed mimetic desire to be capable of peaceful and non-violent fulfillment. He in fact agreed that mimetic desire is that which opens us up (positively) to God and others.

Adams: But again, that’s the idea of renunciation of the will, isn’t it?

Girard: The idea of renunciation has, no doubt, been overdone by the Puritans and the Jansenists, but the blanket hostility that now prevails against it is even worse. The idea that renunciation in all its forms should be renounced once and for all may well be the most flagrant nonsense any human culture has ever devised. But as to whether I am advocating “renunciation” of mimetic desire, yes and no. Not the renunciation of mimetic desire itself, because what Jesus advocates is mimetic desire. Imitate me, and imitate the father through me, he says, so it’s twice mimetic. Jesus seems to say that the only way to avoid violence is to imitate me, and imitate the Father. So the idea that mimetic desire itself is bad makes no sense. It is true, however, that occasionally I say “mimetic desire’ when I really mean only the type of mimetic desire that generates mimetic rivalry and, in turn, is generated by it.

Adams: This is an important clarification. It seems that it wouldn’t make sense, in light of your theory itself, to say mimetic desire should be renounced…

Girard: A simple renunciation of desire I don’t think is Christian. It’s more Buddhist. Undoubtedly there are similarities between what I am saying and Buddhism. If you read the descriptions of Buddhism, they are very profound; they are very aware of mimetic desire, and of contagion, and of all the things that matter in human relations. Like all great religious writing. The thing that is unique about Christianity is that it wants to go back to the origin, to the sacrificial origin, and uncover it. Buddhism is not interested in doing this at all. And Buddhism advocates getting out of the world altogether. Christianity never does that. Christianity says, the cross will be there for you, inevitably. But that kind of renunciation is very different.

…I would say that mimetic desire, even when bad, is intrinsically good, in the sense that far from being merely imitative in a small sense, it’s the opening out of oneself.

Note, finally, in Girard’s objections to Buddhism an answer to those who see in Girard a gnostic tendency to see salvation as an escape from the world and time. “Buddhism advocates getting out of the world altogether,” Girard insists, “Christianity never does that.” Adams brings up the charge of Gnosticism:

Adams: I’d like to ask now about your understanding of history, and how you interpret both sacrifice itself and Christianity within the movement of history. It seems as if your thought tends toward Gnosticism, in the sense that it is knowledge which eventually saves us, history is a process of coming to greater and greater knowledge of the victimage mechanism, and there is some point toward which we are progressing, at which we will be enlightened in a definitive sense.

Girard: Yes, but don’t forget that I say that this knowledge is very ambivalent in the way it works with people, that there are always perversions of this knowledge.

Adams: So history is not a straight line, a humanistic progress toward an end goal, or something like that.

Girard: No, no.

Adams: And yet you do seem to have a sense of progression.

Girard: I do. The nineteenth century had too much of this sense; our age has too little of it. We are a big reaction against the nineteenth century, and in many ways that’s very positive. But in some ways it’s excessive: all the pessimism against our own religion, against our own culture, against everything which is ours. So I think that’s a problem as well.

Adams: You are referring to multiculturalism, at least in some of the extreme separatist or punitive forms it takes?

Girard: Yes, and that sort of thing.

Adams: Because we’re reacting against our own ethnocentrism, and that’s a healthy impulse, but what we are doing essentially is scapegoating our own culture in the process, and that’s problematic.

Girard: It is the little compensation we can give to the people who have been historically scapegoated. But we are then turning around and scapegoating our own tradition. Scapegoating and betraying our own tradition has become an absolute duty, especially when it is done in the name of Christian charity, of course.

Girard - Things Hidden__________________________

It may be that Girard is driven by a certain prophetic fervor to expose the violence that has crept into so much of Christian thought and self-understanding. But this is, after all, the prophetic calling. One could similarly accuse Israel’s prophets of being too one-sided, too over-invested in negative assessments, too eager to find fault but not to map out what a redeemed human culture looks like, etc. Girard did not map out an ecclesiology of how the Church embodies within the world all the cultural forms of human solidarity that God realizes in and through it. This is an incompleteness to be sure, but to suspect him of latent gnostic tendencies seems a bit much, to say nothing of the fact that Girard directly addressed that question.

It’s one thing to admit non-violent senses of sacrificial language in the ways Hart describes – as expressive of the loving self-surrender and reception that defines Father, Son and Spirit as the God who is love. But does this tell us how to distinguish those “currents of stress” within Israel’s faith and history which Hart and Girard both see in Israel’s texts? Near the end of discussing Girard, Hart notes that we should not speak of the Cross “as a sacrifice” but as “the convergence of two radically opposed orders of sacrifice.” That sounds perfectly Girardian (later in his life)! And the convergence cannot be allowed to blend together to become a third thing. The “radical opposition” has to remain clear and definable throughout or no truly non-violent account of the gospel is possible – and Hart wants that as much as Girard.

So what are the two opposing orders? One is Israel’s entire sacrificial economy with every requirement of blood sacrifice. The other is the peaceful surrendering of Christ’s life to God – a life we can describe as a ‘sacrifice’ in the positive, peaceful sense Hart champions (and which we now know Girard himself celebrated). But as Hart agrees, Christ does not require the Cross to constitute the event of his life as gift surrendered/sacrificed to God, however completely his life of surrender is revealed in the demands which being crucified make of him. Thus, the sacrifice which Christ makes and the sacrifice which they who crucify him make are the “two radically opposed orders of sacrifice.” crosss“The crucifixion,” Hart describes, “is what happens to this sacrifice [viz., the sacrifice that is Christ’s peaceful and loving life lived in surrender to God], even as its seal and perfect accomplishment, but not as such its event” (emphasis mine). Thanks to Rebecca Adams, we know that there’s nothing here the late Girard would have disagreed with, so I take Hart’s criticisms of Girard in BOI to be answered. Had Hart engaged Girard’s later reflections published by Adams, I’m guessing Hart’s assessment of Girard would have been different.

What Hart doesn’t address in his critique of Girard’s thoughts on Israel’s sacrificial cult is whether or not he (Hart) thinks God really directed Israel’s development of sacrificial rituals. It’s a fair question. Does God’s being non-violent extend to the treatment of animals used in sacrifice to God or to the arguably inevitable corruption of faith and thought that so bloody an approach would precipitate? It would arguably be impossible to secure a non-violent reading of the gospel if one believes God ordained and directed the slaughter of vast numbers of animals. If the “event” of God’s triune fullness is an infinitely accomplished peace which Christ’s life reveals, whence the divine requirement for blood? Hart seems to agree with Girard that there is none. So are the prophets who rebuke Israel merely objecting to an improper heart attitude that spoiled blood sacrifices God was otherwise looking forward to enjoying? Or is the final truth that Christ reveals anticipated more by the occasional but unmistakably radical sentiment of Ps 51.17: “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings”? The writer doesn’t appear to believe that sacrifice is the proper response even of a transformed heart. On the contrary, once the heart becomes the explicit scene of grace’s transformation, there’s no need for sacrifice. As he says, “…else I would bring it.” Hosea 6.6 as well: “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings” But one might ask why not both mercy and sacrifice if all that’s wrong with blood sacrifice is the absence of a merciful disposition in the worshiper? Or Heb 10.8: “‘Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them’, though they were offered in accordance with the law,” and so forth.

I liken Israel’s entire sacrificial cult as similar to Israel’s monarchy (see Israel’s request for a king in 1Sam 8), or for that matter to God’s permitting divorce (Mt 19:8) – as something God never wanted, something which was essentially a misrelation to God’s intentions and desires, a violation of an economy of peace God sought to establish, but something which God permitted due to the hardened heart of Israel, God’s covenant partner. Consider how this plays out with Israel’s insistence upon having a king. God never wanted Israel to have a king, and the very request, Samuel warns, amounted to a rejection of God by Israel. And yet God gave them what they wanted, complete with instructions on how to manage the monarchy within the framework of Israel’s covenant. Eventually Israel’s hopes for salvation become inseparable from the language of monarchy and later Christian thought and worship come to express themselves in the same terms. But the “radical opposition” never gets resolved into a peaceful economy. However natural it feels to celebrate later achievements wrought by grace through such accommodations (whether blood sacrifice or monarchy or what have you), the accommodations remain obstacles that are overcome, contingencies in spite of which God brings his salvation.

For the present it is the Church’s calling to realize, via the Spirit, what God intends human solidarity to look like, all the while maintaining the “radically opposed orders” of sacrifice. There’s no way to read straight off Israel’s history the one story God is writing, however tied to Israel’s history we must be. Does God’s good story include divorce since God permitted divorce? Hardly. Does it include monarchy since God tolerated that? Not in light of Israel’s reassessment of her own history. Does it include animal sacrifice since God accommodated blood sacrifice? Does it include the Cross since God submitted to it? Here, with Girard, I have to follow the logic of peaceful love. The story we tell, the story victims tell, is the story of our shared participation in the “event” (Hart’s word) of God’s peaceful, self-surrender. The revelation of this event always occurs in a violent, less than ideal world, a world which is both the means of revelation and the object which revelation addresses and seeks to transform. That may not be an easy history to parse, but (the late) Girard manages it as well as any, better than most.

The Hart of Rene Girard—Part 1

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There’s a Youtube interview (never mind the link) with David Bentley Hart in which Hart discusses Rene Girard’s work. Unfortunately the audio recording makes understanding Hart impossible.

I’ve kept an open ear online for announcements of an interview or essay in which Hart describes his appreciation for and criticisms of Girard, but nothing forthcoming. I did, however, manage to find enough of Hart’s thoughts on Girard in Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite (BOI, 347-353), relevant portions of which I’ve reproduced below. I’ll leave this Part 1 to Hart and return with a Part 2 to reflect upon his assessment. If you have BOI and are a fan of Girard as I am, take advantage of the whole passage. Hart writes:

The myth of the cosmos as a precarious equilibrium of countervailing forces, an island of order amidst and infinite ocean of violent energy – which is also the myth of the polis or the empire – belongs principally to a sacral order that seeks to contain nature’s violence within the stabilizing forms of a more orderly kind of violence: the sheer waste and destructiveness of the cosmos must be held at bay and controlled, by a motion at once apotropaic – repelling chaos by appeasing its chthonian [pronounced /Kthounian/ or /Thounian/, meaning “pertaining to the underworld”] energies and rationalizing them in structures of Apollonian order – and economic – recuperating what is lost or sacrificed in the form of a transcendent credit, a numinous power reinforcing the regime that sacrifice serves…This is the sacrificial logic that theology is called upon to reject: the commerce of the totality, which is overcome by the infinite gesture of Christ’s sacrifice.

Can, though, sacrifice defeat sacrifice? Is not the cross of Christ another myth of peace won through violence, of chaos and death subdued by a propitiatory offering, and of, indeed (as Nietzsche said), the infinite multiplication of debt rather than its discharge? One would obviously wish to say not, but one must also have a care that, in making one’s argument, one does not fail to account for the element of oblation in the story of salvation. A salutary example, both for good and ill, of how delicate a matter it is to argue against the idea of the cross as divine violence is Rene Girard; no one else has made so great an issue of the difference between the death of Christ and the death of the “sacrificial” victim. Girard’s most extensive treatment of propitiatory exclusion is found in The Scapegoat, where he draws an absolute distinction between the mythology that dictates that religions make room, on ritual occasions, for disorder in subordination to order and those biblical narratives that tell their story from the perspective of the victim of both that disorder and that order. Mythologies, according to Girard, generally reflect the thinking of the class of persecutors; and “[s]trong in their righteousness, and convinced that their victim is truly guilty, persecutors have no reason to be troubled” (104). Not that persecutors are always creatures of malice more often than not they are guardians of the public weal, whose prudence prevents violence from erupting into riot, warfare, or internecine strife. Their sacrificial economics is simply the art of responsible politics. Of Caiaphas’s remark that it is better that one die than that the nation perish, for instance, Girard writes: “Caiaphas is stating the…political reason…for the scapegoat: to limit violence as much as possible bot to turn to it, if necessary, as a last resort to avoid an even greater violence. Caiaphas is the incarnation of politics at its best, not its worst. No one has ever been a better politician (113). And so, “Caiaphas is the perfect sacrificer who puts victims to death to save those who live. By reminding us of this John emphasizes that every real cultural decision has a sacrificial character (decider, remember, is to cut the victim’s throat) that refers back to an unrevealed effect of the scapegoat, the sacred type of representation of persecution” (114). For Girard this means that theologians who speak of Christ’s death (at least in its salvific function) as a sacrifice “once more make sacred the violence that has been divested of its sacred character by the Gospel text (126); and in so doing they lose sight of the evangel that truly sets free: “The good news is that scapegoats can no longer save men, the persecutors’ accounts of their persecutions are no longer valid, and truth shines into dark places. God is not violent, the true God has nothing to do with violence, and he speaks to us not through distant intermediaries but directly. The Son he sends us is one with him. The Kingdom of God is at hand” (189). In Things Hidden Since the Foundations of the World Girard goes so far as to advocate a “non-sacrificial reading of the gospel text”: the Bible from the beginning seeks to unwind the narrative of sacrifice, he says, taking the side of Abel against Cain, whose violence is indeed the founding of cities; the crucifixion is, thus, in no sense a sacrifice (180); for the notion of divine violence is no part of the Gospel story (189). Girard sees the profound logic of Scripture, as a whole, as lying in its constant movement away from the mythology of sacrifice (205-6), even as the presence of sacrificial and exclusionary themes causes currents of contradiction to run through its texts: he contrasts (to the former’s discredit) the stories of humanity’s expulsion from Eden and that of Johns prologue, which speaks of God’s exclusion by a violent world (247-76); and he does not hesitate to take the book of Hebrews to task for trafficking in sacrificial motifs and for, in consequence, implicating God in the persecution of the victim (227-31).

That Girard’s arguments suffer from an occasional want of subtlety scarcely needs be said; in particular, his failure adequately to distinguish different senses of sacrifice from one another leads him all too often to treat the history of Israel’s faith as a stark opposition between a sacrificial cult and a prophetic tradition that has rejected sacrifice, causing him in consequence to overlook the manifold meanings inherent in Israel’s many sacrificial practices, the dependency of the prophetic tradition upon the language of sacrifice, and the ways in which the life and death of Christ are received in Christian thought as perfecting God’s covenant with Israel – even insofar as that covenant involves sacrifices. If Christ’s death overcomes a certain sacrificial order, it also fulfills one. Still, Girard’s observations must not be casually dismissed: it would obviously be repellent, for instance, for a Christian theologian to make of the crucifixion a kind of justification for capital punishment; but within a certain understanding of sacrifice, the immolation of the hostia and the execution of the criminal belong to the same motion of exclusion, the same inhibition of chaos, the same economic gesture; and this is a distinction that cannot be ignored. If the language of sacrifice in Christian thought did properly refer to an economy of exchange, such that God were appeased in the slaughter of a victim and his wrath were simply averted by way of a prudential violence of which he approved (and Flagellation of Christ, ca. 1900.who can deny that many Christians have imagined their faith in just these terms?), then indeed the Christian God would be a God of violence, and the Christian evangel of peace would simply dissemble another economy of violence and debt – one that, in fact (Nietzsche winning the field), has been monstrously magnified. Here, as nowhere else, this book’s initial question proves most perilous to ask: Does the language of sacrifice within Christian thought, inextirpable from Scripture, make of the gospel a tale that defeats itself in the telling, the beauty of whose rhetoric proves in the end to be another – and particularly meretricious – variant of the glamor of violence? And this is by no means an easy question to answer: contrary to Girard’s contention, the presence of sacrificial language in the New Testament is so deeply constitutive of Christian soteriology (even in its overcoming of sacrificial models of cosmic order) that it cannot simply be dispelled by drawing a firm demarcation between the site of the persecutor and the site of the victim, between the place of eminence and the place of abjection. Girard is right to make this distinction, of course, and even right to do so with a degree of prophetic fervor; but the dangers of his method are many: he risks leaving Israel behind and so, in consequence, the world.

The Christian story of salvation concerns not the descent of some gnostic savior bearing tidings of an alien God, but the covenant that God makes with Israel and the covenant he makes, consequently, with all flesh; it is in the history of the world he elects; it is in his people, the Jews, that God instates an order of infinite giving that responds to the infinity of his gift in creating, and that stands apart from the hierarchies of worldly power. It is only in fulfilling – indeed, in being the substance of – this covenant that Christ makes the story that God tells concerning creation triumph over the false and violent stories that sinful humanity tells of the world. Girard’s treatment of the matter, however, in its most extreme moments, makes out the salvific motion of Christ’s life to be almost purely negative, a motion of alienation, running dialectically against history. Not that this is Girard’s intention: he intends that the story of the victim be recognized as a true story and one that must be liberated from the narratives of the persecutor; but the effect of his account of salvation is that Christ comes to look almost like a Marcionite savior, who does not so much inaugurate the liberating history of God with us as describe a path of flight from time. Rather than the form that stands in the midst of creation to declare the true shape of creation, Christ looks suspiciously like a figure who saves simply by pointing beyond every economy – and every world but society is exchange, giving and taking, even in some sense sacrificing one thing for another, offering one thing up for another. Does Christ then offer a new order of exchange and sacrifice, or is he simply the abnegation of human solidarity, a revolutionary outcry that forever interrupts the story of the world but tells no story of its own? Is salvation merely the liberation of souls from the bondage of the world? Again, Girard intends to say no such thing; but where, in the world, does the victim have a story of his own?…

There are many sacrificial moments in Israel’s response to God, of course, and so Israel’s cultic practices cannot be reduced to one essential thing univocally termed “sacrifice.” There are indeed practices of violence and exclusion, but also practices of sanctification and reconciliation, thanksgiving and adoration. Before all else, though, sacrifice is a qurban, a drawing nigh, an approach to God who graciously approaches his people in love. If there are currents of stress in the history of Israel’s cult, they do not run between the idea of sacrifice as such and a prophetic rejection of sacrifice, but between different ways of understanding the motion of sacrifice that Israel is, the gift it makes of itself – of its body – to the God who gives it its being and its name…

…For Christian thought the true order of sacrifice is that which corresponds to the motion of the divine perichoresis, the Father’s giving of the Son, the Son’s execution of all the Father is and wills, the Spirit’s eternal offering back up of the gift in endless variety, each person receiving from and giving to each other in infinite love. The pagan or secular sacrificial regime obeys the logic of the boundary, the “justice” of demarcations, the blow with which Romulus slays Renus; the sacrifice that Christ is obeys the life of the God who is apeiron, aperilepton, boundless, impossible to “leap over,” but crossing every boundary in absolute freedom to declare his love…

This is why the cross of Christ should be seen not simply as a sacrifice, but as the convergence of two radically opposed orders of sacrifice. It is pure crisis, a confrontation between worlds, the raising up of one out of the grip of the other. Within Israel’s history the most important practice of sacrifice is ultimately confined to the temple in Jerusalem alone, and this is entirely appropriate. Israel’s offering does not express a sacrificial logic simply inherent in being, practicable in any setting, for purposes of auspication or haruspication or private benefit, but is the single action of God’s people, the extraordinary motion of Israel’s ceaseless exodus toward God, to whom all being belongs, peacefully, and who therefore has no need for it to be portioned to him in an economy of violence. It is this same motion toward God that is made perfect in the life of Christ, in the gift he makes of himself to the Father by the entirety of who he is. The crucifixion is what happens to this sacrifice, even as its seal and perfect accomplishment, but not as such its event; the cross is the response of political power to Christ’s self-oblation, which is the entire kenotic and faithful unfolding of his mission. There is a double motion in the crucifixion, of gift and immolation: Christ giving himself to God in the entirety of his life lived toward the Father, unto death, and the violence of worldly power folding back upon this motion in an attempt to contain it.

 

Mimesis and atonement

mimesisLooking forward to diving into this wonderful collection when it reaches the top of my list. It’s third in line: Mimesis and Atonement: René Girard and the Doctrine of Salvation (Violence, Desire, and the Sacred) by Michael Kirwan and Sheelah Treflé Hidden. Here’s the foreward by Rowan Williams, as succinct a statement of the implications of Girard’s theories for the Christian doctrine of atonement as you’ll find:

Rene Girard’s comprehensive and still controversial theories about the origins of culture continue to be discussed in relation to an ever-widening range of disciplines; recent collections of essays have explore their connection with evolutionary biology and neuroscience, as well as with the more familiar areas of anthropology and literary criticism, and an increasing number of studies have looked at the relevance of Girardian analyses to the concrete problems of modern politics and international relations. But the theological agenda has always been a central aspect of Girard’s own concerns and a major area of impact for his theories. Girard has consistently argued that the narrative of the gospel, the narrative of the paradigm case of an expelled and executed innocent, a scapegoat, turns inside out the categories of archaic religion (including the archaic religion that masquerades as modernity). If human culture rests on a ‘founding murder’, the basic act of expelling an arbitrarily designated figure to carry the unbearable tensions of the community outside its boundaries and so remove their burden, then Christianity, to quote Girard’s own formulation is ‘a founding murder in reverse’.

That is not an immediately transparent formulation. But it means something like this: Human beings are – before they realize it, independently of their realizing it – driven again and again to repeat, with ever greater ingenuity, the pattern of foundational violence. Culture goes on reinventing scapegoats, and humans are permanently and paralyzingly involved in this mechanism, struggling to make peace and to secure boundaries by acts of exclusion, which guarantee that anxiety and division will continue. ‘Sacral violence’ is a human addiction, because we have never learnt of ourselves what a community of shared identity might be that was based on something other than this. The uncomfortable truth about a lot of Christian theologies of atonement has been that they claim that there has been one simple and ultimately effective application of sacral violence in the death of Christ. Christ, the innocent carries our sins; he is thus identifiable s ‘the victim we have always been looking for’ – and Girard’s most challenging theological insight is that this is exactly what the death of Christ cannot and must not be.

His argument is that we have to digest a paradox: Christ’s death is the inversion of the mechanism in such a way that it exposes the self-destructive character and irrational nature of the mechanism, rather than satisfying its requirements once and for all. Rather than as the victim we have always been looking for, the supremely effective victim of sacred exclusion, Christ’s effectiveness is in showing that we can be delivered from our addiction to that pattern and establishing another kind of common identity. Our human helplessness is outmaneuvered by a freedom of action that is completely beyond our negotiated efforts to establish peace. The act of God is there first: an act which in its universal invitation and non-exclusionary love holds open the possibility of a communal identity that is shareable by all. This is what the ministry of Jesus already affirms and it is what the events of Easter embody. The new community is not created by the ‘successful’ slaughter of the innocent (which in the gospels is connected with the fragmentation or destruction of the fellowship of Jesus’ followers) but by the triumphant and undeniable reaffirming of Jesus’ proclamation in the resurrection, vindicating his anti-violent gospel and exhibiting the contradictory and death-dealing nature of the scapegoat mechanism itself. Instead of the cross of Christ being the long-awaited answer to our question about how we might ‘finally’ make the mechanism work, it dissolves the entire working of sacral violence and casts the emphasis on the free act of a divine agent beyond all rivalry, negotiation or competition. God is ‘inimitable’ and needs no imitative struggle to attain divine identity; God’s radical generosity is thus uniquely able to expose the self-subverting arbitrariness of human exclusion.

How this maps in detail on to the range of classical Christian theologies of redemption is not a simple matter; some formulations already imply just this paradoxical reversal, some embody in emphatic form precisely the mechanism Girard thinks must be exploded, and it is not straightforward to tell which is which. Some expositions of substitutionary satisfaction may surprise us by effectually subverting their own terms; an apparently liberal bit of exemplarism may lead us straight back into sacral violence of a new kind. We are in need of careful and imaginative readings of our tradition in the light of Girard’s remarkably fertile models – and this is what the present collection splendidly does for us. Atonement theologies can constitute one of the most frustrating areas of doctrinal reflection and analysis, a territory populated by ‘ignorant armies clashing by night’, with stereotypes thrown around and a failure to attend to the detail of argument. Thinking through these questions with Girard on one hand, and the gospel on the other, is (appropriately) a salutary experience. It will not allow us to settle with a theology that simply presents God as responding to the terms in which we put our question, which is always a seduction to be resisted in theology; Girard obliges us to think what difference it might make theologically if we genuinely try to make sense of the act of God in the passion of Jesus as the act of a radical freedom from the fear of otherness, a radical freedom from competition. Whatever account of the redeeming work of Christ we emerge with will at least not be just a repetition of the crudest forms of sacrificial economy – and in recalling us to these basic ‘grammatical’ considerations about how the act of God is to be imagined, it will have implications for many more areas of the theological task, so that this is not just a book about one topic but an invitation to think about the method of a whole discipline. It is a book that should help theology to be more itself.

Who, what and how are we?

man2I’ve encouraged friends to read James Alison’s wonderful book The Joy of Being Wrong. I’m not excited about it because I agree with every claim he makes, but because he articulates so well (in Girardian terms) what human (social) nature is, what salvation amounts to, and how this is all best read in light of the resurrection of Christ. Maybe it’s just because of where I am at the present moment, but I find Alison full of insight.

There will be plenty of opportunity to post passages I agree with. Let me start with an aspect of Alison’s work that I disagree with. In working out his anthropology (Ch 2), Alison rejects transcendental anthropology. A transcendental anthropology views human nature to be constituted as an implicit and irresistible orientation of desire for God. Not that God is always what we consciously or explicitly intend, but that desire is God-given and thus oriented Godward, that is to say, to find its fulfillment in God. This orientation of desire derives from the transcendent presence of God as the immediate ground and end of human being and all human desiring, as well as intrinsic teleology of created nature and the scope of every nature’s possibilities. Human rationality and desire are, you might say, hardwired for God. Think of desire as a kind of aesthetic gravity to consciousness, a ‘power of attraction’ that draws desire to its fulfillment. To say we transcendently desire God is not to say we never set our desires on things other than God; it is to say that in all our desiring, God remains the truest end and fulfillment of that desire and that all desire is truly fulfilled when we intentionally make God the end of all we do (Col 3.23-24).

That’s my understanding of transcendental anthropology at least. But Alison is suspicious of such talk. I’ll let him explain why (from various portions of his Ch 2) and then respond with a few reflections in an upcoming post. Alison writes:

This, of course, places us on a somewhat different course from any transcendental anthropology, which sees, as a matter of philosophical truth, the human being as imbued with a somehow experienced orientation toward grace and glory and therefore the concrete, contingent, historical acts of salvation (the prophets, the coming of Christ, the existence of the Church, the sacraments) as merely making explicit the universal availability of grace. In such a view, “the historical events, the human acts and images which can alone be the site of supernatural difference, are here reduced to mere signs of a perfect inward self-transcendence, always humanly available.

At this point it seems important to try to indicate why the transcendental element seems unnecessary in a fundamental anthropology…

I do not want to deny…that all Christian anthropology must posit that all humans are, just by the fact of being humans, called to participate in the divine life. However, it seems to me that this theological doctrine is an important human discovery made in the light of the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and is part of a discovery that we are, in fact, quite different from what we normally think we are. That is to say, the doctrine of the universal vocation to theiosis is itself part of the discovery of salvation as a difficult process worked out in hope, in which we hope to become something which we are not, or are scarcely, now.

If we detach the doctrine of the universal vocation to theiosis from the element of discovery in hope of something which contradicts our daily lived experience and turn it into a quasi-philosophical description of what we all are, inescapably, then we merely transform the doctrine of the security of salvation…into a universal philosophical principle. This means, in theological terms, that a subtle form of anonymous semi-Pelagianism, and thus shortcuts the way in which discovery of the universality of the call to theiosis is, for each of its participants, a radical conversion and part of the revelation of salvation.

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Let me therefore try to set out the way in which the anthropology I have been trying to set out differs from this (and the answer is, only very, very slightly). The human being is constituted by what is other than himself or herself, and is always utterly related to this other which is anterior to himself or herself. The other I’m talking about is, of course, the human, social, cultural, material, environmental other proper to our planet. It is this other than has forged language, memory, will, and the capacity to relate to the other. So much might reasonably be recognized by anyone, independent of religious conviction. However, that is not to say that the anthropology I have been setting out could have been set out except from a theological perspective. In fact, it was a very particular set of contingent historical actions, lives, and circumstances that made it possible to perceive the role of the victim as foundational to human being, contingent actions involving a reversal of perspective on the relation of any one of us to that victim. That is to say, it was a particular set of historical events which made it possible fully to recognize the other which forms us. And it made it possible to recognize this precisely in the simultaneous act of revealing that there was a different sort of other that could form us in a different sort of way: that is to say, there is a different perspective on the founding murder than that which is connatural to us.

In this way, we can say that every human being is, in fact, constituted by and with an in-built relationality to the other which formed him or her. This other constituted the very possibility of human desire. We can also say that owing to the way in which we are in fact constituted, that desire is rivalistic and builds identity, to a greater or lesser extent, by denial of the alterity, and the anteriority, of the other desire. That is to say, human desire, as we know it, works by grasping and appropriating being rather than receiving it. In this sense, we are all always already locked into the other which forms us in a relationship of acquisitive mimesis, that is, in a relationship of violence which springs from, and leads to, death.

It became possible to understand this (in fact) not from natural rational deduction (though there is nothing inherently incomprehensible about it), but precisely because of the irruption of a novum into the midst of the social other which forms us, a novum which is a revelation of a different sort of Other, and Other that is completely outside any form of rivalistic desire and that made itself historically present as a self-giving and forgiving victim. This self-given victim, from outside human mimetic rivalry, revealed precisely that the death-locked lie of mimetic rivalry flowing from culture’s hidden victims is not the original mode of desire, but a distortion of it. That which was chronologically original (and seemed to us to be simply natural) is discovered to be logically secondary to an anterior self-giving and creative desire.

…The transformation of our “self” via our constitutive alterity happens not through some universal transcendence, but exactly through the givenness of certain particular historical actions and signs, moving us to produce and reproduce just such historical acts and signs.

…Can we then talk of a universal desiderium naturale, natural desire, for God? Well, once again, only as a result of the acceptance of the revelation that the real source of the anteriority which forms us is a purely nonrivalistic, self-giving desire (love). What we have without that faith is a construction of desire that never breaks out of circles of appropriation and exclusion. It would be wrong to call that desire a natural desire for God. We might properly call it a natural desire for being, but an idolatrous desire being, since we are incapable of merely receiving being. So we go to idolatrous lengths to shore up our fragile sense of being, being prepared to sacrifice the other to save our “self.” What we can observe is that, in any given historical instance, our desire is for things which have become obstacles to God precisely because they are desire appropriatively, by grasping. It is in the transformation of our receptivity that our desire becomes a desire from and for God and is discovered to be such not as something plastered over our distorted desires, but as the real sense behind even those distorted desires, as something anterior to them. It is in this sense that we become sons and daughters of God as we discover that our belonging to, our being held in being by, the other is more secure and original a way of being in the world than our grasping and appropriating things. The tourist grasps and appropriates on his way through, because he knows that these things, these sights, will not be his tomorrow. The dweller in the land does not need to hold on to them, because she knows that they will be there tomorrow, and it is they that have formed her, not she who possesses them. The disiderium naturale is “there” as something that can be recovered.

In this sense I am completely in agreement with J. L. Segundo when he insists that it is quite wrong to see any human construction of values as implicitly pointing toward God simply because they are a human construction of values. Human desire is a good thing because it can in principle be drawn into the desire of God, precisely as human desire, and indeed we know from faith that it was for this that it was created. That does not stop the very condition of possibility of our desire of God (the human structure of desire) being lived without even an implicit reference to the pacific gratuitous other which can transform us into receivers of our being. It is possible for human desire to be lived as idolatry, as complete missing of the point (a “falling short of the glory of God”), an exacerbated desire for metaphysical autonomy, and thus a seeking to appropriate (rather than receive) life for the self, a living from death to death – running from our own death and causing that of others. In this way I hope it is possible to see that the theological anthropology which I have been setting out is in fact well suited to the basic insight of the liberation theologians that the choices is not between theism and atheism, but between the true God (the God of life) and idolatry. This is rather better suited, I would suggest, than a transcendental anthropology, which effectively pre-pardons idolatry without transforming the idolater, without giving him or her the chance of a real restructuring of heart.

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One can see Alison’s main concerns:

  • First, a transcendental anthropology reduces the historical events of salvation history to “mere signs of a perfect inward self-transcendence” which are “always humanly available.”
  • Second, if grace is constitutive of created nature (defining its end and delimiting the scope of its possibilities), then theosis fails to be “the discovery of salvation as a difficult process worked out in hope” in which we “become something we are not.” That is, Alison believes transcendental anthropologies reduce the gospel to a “quasi-philosophical description of what we all [already] are” which he takes to be Pelagian. What we are meant to become, Alison maintains, requires events (Incarnation, Cross, Resurrection) that intrude within the natural order. They are not truths derived philosophically from what can be rationally deduced from contemplating nature, an “unaided outworking of a human dynamic,” for “nothing human could have revealed the constitution of the human consciousness in human victimization.” A radical novum is needed, a divine act which constitutes salvation as a gracious intrusion from outside the scope or reach of human rationality, as opposed to the natural unfolding of dispositions already present in us.
  • Third, it is obviously the case that we do in fact exhaust our desires idolatrously upon false ends “without even an implicit reference to the pacific gratuitous other which can transform us.”
  • Lastly, Alison suggests that a transcendental grace constitutive of nature would “pre-pardon idolatry” and leave us “without…the chance of a real restructuring of the heart.”

I’d love to hear what folks have to say about Alison’s objections to transcendental anthropology. I think he fundamentally misunderstands what is meant by those who see nature sacramentally as shot through with grace from beginning to end, but I’ll try to explore that in an upcoming post.

The Joy of Being Wrong

alison

Back in the late Spring I found myself reading James Alison, partly from having stumbled into references of him in other books and finally through a friend’s recommendation. I’ve post portions of him here and here. I’m presently reading through his The Joy of Being Wrong (his PhD dissertation), a work of theological anthropology appropriating Girard which “looks at original sin in the light of the Resurrection.” I’m gripped by it and quite moved, not half way through it. This evening I was especially moved by the following passage that zeros in on what ought to be the heart of how we understand the human predicament from which Christ rescues us. Enjoy!

…the sense of the self, the être [“other”]…is always received as a given, when when that preceding givenness, or the reception, is seriously marred by violence of circumstance, or paternal incompetence or ill will. The relationship between the être as received and as acquired by more or less violent appropriation is at the heart of the theology of original sin.

The description I have given leads to an understanding of the human self, the “me” of each of us, as being an unstable structure, one that is changeable, malleable, and other-dependent, whether it likes it or not. The other is always anterior to “me.” It also means…first, that it is desire which engenders the “me” and which brings it, by its movement, into existence; and, second, that desire is mimetic, that is, it moves in imitation of the desire of another.

Since the “me” of each one of us is founded by desire, we cannot say that desire is our own, as though it belongs to some preexistent “me.” It is the other way around. The “me” is radically dependent on the desires whose imitation formed it. This means that there is no “real me” at the bottom of it all, when I’ve scrapped away all the things I’ve learned, all the influences I’ve undergone. Psychology is what goes on between people, not, in the first place, in any particular individual. Having grasped this is what permits Girard…to talk of an interdividual psychology. In more accessible terminology this means that psychological facts have to do with relationships. Psychological problems have to do with broken or disturbed relationships, and psychological wholeness has to do with restoring and mending broken relationships.

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We have, then, in any given human being, a self formed by the desire of another. That desire is lived in rivalistic inflection, what I have called desire of grasping or appropriation. We also have the discovery that the possibility of the existence of any desire at all was an anterior desire that is in no sense rivalistic, which we call the creative love of God. The gratuity of God’s love works precisely and only as self-giving; working to produce in each human a capacity to accept—as purely gratuitous—the self-giving other. The permanent self-giving is more than an offer of self-giving, it is self-giving itself, but it can never be lived as self-giving by humans who grasp and appropriate the other. Grace can be lived only as something permanently gratuitously received. The great anthropological transformation, therefore, is of the way in which we move from being constituted by an anterior desire which moves us into deadlock, by grasping and appropriating our sense of being, to being constituted by a self-giving other than can be received only as constantly and perpetually self-giving, as gratuitous, and therefore never grasped, never appropriated, but only received and shared. If it is true to say that it is more blessed to given than to receive, this is because we are the sort of creatures who can only properly (gratuitously) give as part of an imitation of a gratuitous reception. Real giving and real receiving are a mutually structuring reality. We are talking of the person who is beginning to be empowered to move from feeling that society, the others, owe him something, toward being able to be toward other people—to act out for them—what they think is owed to them.

treegift

What this means is that the gratuitous self-giving of God is always present contiguous to, and subversive of, any given now, and it is the gratuitous presence which has made itself explicit in concrete human historical circumstances. It is not universal human self-transcendence which makes itself explicit in the events and narrations of salvation, but the universally present self-giving of God, enabling us to become receivers, rather than graspers, of the other which forms us, revealed as purely gratuitous. The problem between intrinsicist and extrinsicist accounts of grace is not a problem, in the first place, of the theology of grace, but one of the anthropology of reception. The dilemma between grace as somehow “owed” to a human and grace as somehow “already imbued in the human” shows that the discussion is taking place entirely within an anthropology of grasping and appropriating and is not focusing on the necessary gratuity of the transformation into gratuitous receivers of what remains lived in gratuity. One of the things revealed by the doctrine of original sin is that it is our capacity to receive gratuitously that was damaged in the fall; not our capacity to receive, because we have to receive in order to exist, but our capacity to receive gratuitously, which is the only way in which we can share in divine life, because that life can never be other than gratuitous. (Bold mine)

Can we then talk of a universal desiderium natural, natural desire, for God? Well, once again, only as a result of the acceptance of the revelation that the real source of the anteriority which forms us is a purely nonrivalistic, self-giving desire (love). What we have without that faith is a construction of desire that never breaks out of circles of appropriation and exclusion. It would be wrong to call that desire a natural desire for God [Tom: In Alison’s terms perhaps not “natural,” but natural nonetheless in the sense that what Alison says is the “source” of that desire (divine desire/love) is not the past event of God’s having created the world, but the abiding, presence of that desire as God creatively present in sustaining us]. We might properly call it a natural desire for being, but an idolatrous desire being, since we are incapable of merely receiving being. So we go to idolatrous lengths to shore up our fragile sense of being, being prepared to sacrifice the other to save our “self.” What we can observe is that, in any given historical instance, our desire is for things which have become obstacles to God precisely because they are desire appropriatively, by grasping. It is in the transformation of our receptivity that our desire becomes a desire from and for God and is discovered to be such not as something plastered over our distorted desires, but as the real sense behind even those distorted desires, as something anterior to them. It is in this sense that we become sons and daughters of God as we discover that our belonging to, our being held in being by, the other is more secure and original a way of being in the world than our grasping and appropriating things. The tourist grasps and appropriates on his way through, because he knows that these things, these sights, will not be his tomorrow. The dweller in the land does not need to hold on to them, because she knows that they will be there tomorrow, and it is they that have formed her, not she who possesses them.

There are hints in this passage of a more extended treatment by Alison in this chapter that challenges any transcendental reading of desire, the sort of implicit, teleological orientation of desire toward God that one finds defended by David Bentley Hart for example. I’ll do a separate post of Alison’s position on this. It’s one aspect of his anthropology I would disagree with. But overall, Alison has recast the ‘original sin’ discussion for me in a powerful way.

He took it away, nailing it to the Cross

HieronymusCross

You’ve noticed by now that I’m passionate about our understanding of the Cross and how we integrate our understanding of what God does in Christ to address human fallenness with practical, transformational processes. I was going to apologize for pursuing this theme so unrelentingly, but then it dawned on me how strange it would be to apologize for such a thing. Jesus on the Cross for our salvation? Pressing in from every conceivable angle to better understand this event ought to remain the focus of theological interest and personal transformation. There is no Christianity without it.

I come back to Greg Boyd’s recent work in particular (chiefly because of my personal connections to him) as the context in which to contemplate the relevant texts, questions, and proposals, but it’s an ancient conversation. As for recent work, Greg’s hasn’t been the only (or even the most important) work discussed here. Girard by far has been the most influential on me. Heim, Alison, and Robinette (who all appropriate Girard to various degrees) have sat round this table as well.

Let me begin with a quote from Girard’s Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. I’ll follow up with some reflections:

There exists in Paul a genuine doctrine of the victory represented by Jesus’ apparent failure—a victory that is absolute but remains concealed. This doctrine explains the efficacy of the Cross in terms that have nothing to do with sacrifice. However, with the passage of time this doctrine was completely smothered by the sacrificial reading; on the rare occasions the commentators take note of it, they are liable to suspect it of containing unpalatable magical elements that justify the disuse into which it has fallen.

Here we have yet another example of the remarkable paradoxes with which his analysis is strewn. In effect, Paul’s doctrine of the efficacy of the Cross is really quite…cruical. We must perceive its pertinence in the context of our reading of the Cross as a means of revealing the founding mechanism. It is possible, I believe, to show that this doctrine is much more important than all the sacrificial reading. It is later on, with the Epistle to the Hebrews, and the other texts either inspired by it or deriving from a similar inspiration, that we see the triumph of the sacrificial interpretation, which Christian theology has not yet managed to throw off.

The text that tells us most is Colossians 2.13-15. Here Paul writes of Christ that he has made us

…alive together with him, having forgiven us all or trespasses, having cancelled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him.

The bond that stood against us with its demands is human culture, which is the terrifying reflection of our own violence. It bears against us a witness that we do not even notice. And the very ignorance in which we are plunged seats the principalities and powers upon their thrones. By dissipating all this ignorance, the Cross triumphs over the power, brings them into ridicule, and exposes the pitiful secret of the mechanism of sacralization The Cross derives its dissolving capacity from the fact that it makes plain the workings of what can now only be seen—after the Crucifixion—as evil. For Paul to be able to speak as he does, it is necessary for the power of this world to operate in the same way as the Crucifixion does. So it is indeed the Crucifixion that is inscribed in the gospel text and is demystified by Christ, stripped for evermore of its capacity to structure the work of the human mind.

Some Greek Fathers made a great deal of this Pauline theory of the Crucifixion. For Origen, as for Paul, before Christ mankind is subservient to the yoke of the powers of evil. The pagan gods and the quality of the sacred are both identified with the evil angels, who still rule over the nations. Christ appears in the world to do battle with these ‘powers’ and ‘principalities’…

Time and again Origen comes back to the ‘public example’ or ‘spectacle’ of the Epistle to the Colossians and to the work of the Cross which ‘leads captivity captive’ (Commentary on John VI, 56-57).

It is a sign of Dante’s insight into the text I have just read to you, as well as into other texts, that he was impelled, in his Divine Comedy, to show Satan nailed to the Cross—a picture that can only appear bizarre and out of place to those who maintain a conventional, sacrificial interpretation of the Crucifixion.

The prove that the Crucifixion is really about a hidden mechanism of masking that is conclusively demolished by the description of it in the Gospels, we have other passages from Paul that show how the wisdom of God ironically outplayed the calculations of the powers. ‘None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory’ (1 Corinthians 2.8).

By resorting to the founding mechanism once again against Jesus (who had revealed the secret of their power, the founding murder), the powers of this world thought to stifle the Word of Truth for ever. They thought to triumph yet again by the method that had always allowed them to triumph in the past. What they failed to appreciate was that, in spite of the temporary consensus in which even the most faithful of the disciples cooperated, nothing like the usual mythological falsehood would appear in the Gospels. They would show, not the lie common to the religions of the entire planet, but the structural matrix in itself. Under the influence of the spirit, the disciples perpetuated the memory of the event, not in the mythic that ought to have triumphed once again, but in a form that reveals the innocence of the just man who has suffered martyrdom. Thus they avoided sacralizing the victim as the guilty party and prevented him from being held responsible for the purely human disorders that his death was supposed to end.

…Divine punishment is demystified by the gospels; its only place nowadays is in the mythic imagination…

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jesus-on-a-tree-crossThere’s a lot to engage here. Girard’s view that the letter to the Hebrews represents a return to a violent-sacrificial reading of Christ and so fails to carry forward the abandonment of that scapegoating view is an extremely interesting topic, but one for another time. With Girard in mind though, I’d like to reflect on particular aspects of Greg’s overall view of the Cross in hopes of clarifying the conversation.

What is it that is objectionable about Greg’s view of the Cross? What makes his view ‘penal’ (if that’s the best word to get at the problem) in spite of the fact that he so eloquently champions such unconditional ‘love’ as the motivation behind God’s suffering for us in Christ? That objectionable center, it seems to me, is the belief that what constitutes the saving efficacy of Christ’s suffering is what transpires in God, between Father and Son, in terms of the Son suffering the wrath of the Father’s withdrawal. For Greg, the drama of salvation is an inner-trinitarian event in which God becomes the object of his own judgment. Greg’s view is penal because it grounds the saving work of the Cross in God’s experience of that godforsakenness which is, on Greg’s account, God’s judgment (even though it obtains through “withdrawal”).

This is a controversial claim to make about Greg’s work, but I’m not the only one making it – though I am the slowest and dumbest. Greg has sent mixed messages as well. One could easily produce examples of Greg explicitly dismissing the ‘penal-substitutionary’ view the Cross. Perhaps the clearest example would be Greg’s comments here. You’ll notice that many of the objections we have to Greg’s view of the Cross are objections he has to a penal-substitutionary view of the Cross as well. So what gives?

What gives is that while decrying the penal view that “God kills Jesus” and that Jesus “satisfies God’s wrath,” or that Jesus “saves us from God,” Greg nevertheless makes the claim that what in fact saves us is the Father’s abandonment of the Son on the Cross, that this abandonment is divine “withdrawal” which constitutes the “godforsakenness” Greg equates with God’s judgment of sin. Jesus thus suffers the divine wrath we deserve. As Greg explains here (from minute 3:40 on), God must ‘become his antithesis’ (“becoming sin” and “cursed” by God) and suffer his own godforsakenness. Derek Flood notes the punitive connections as well:

The Principle of Redemptive Withdrawal is grounded in an understanding of the cross where “the Son bore the judgment of the sin we deserved” (768). This reflects a penal substitutionary understanding of the cross, the key term here being “penal,” meaning punishment. I should note that Greg does not like the term penal substitution, and does make a point of stating that he rejects the popular form of this doctrine where “the Father had to vent his wrath against sin in order to embrace sinners” (796), arguing instead that “God’s punishments are always redemptive in intent” (785). In other words, he still holds to an understanding of the atonement rooted in punitive justice (the idea that things are made right through violent punishment), but sees the intent of the violence as restorative (or as Greg calls it, “redemptive”), rather than as retributive.

Greg maintains that viewing the Cross in terms of “punishment” and “wrath” doesn’t constitute a penal or punitive view of the Cross because it is undertaken by Father, Son and Spirit out of love and in order to redeem us. It’s redemptive, not punitive. But regardless of God’s benevolent and redemptive intentions, punitive connotations creep back into this view at precisely the point Greg is asked to explain what it is about God that constitutes the necessity of his suffering the judgment of godforsakenness (especially since this suffering has nothing to do with making possible God’s freely forgiving us). The answer can’t also be love, for it is entirely possible to conceive of reconciling broken relationships without requiring anyone to “suffer the consequences” of the offense. That is, the human experiences from which we derive analogies that form the basis of attempts to articulate a non-violent view of the atonement do not themselves entail a universal or even common intuition that an offense requires that the full consequences of the offending party’s behavior be experienced.

If God’s suffering for us precludes punitive associations simply because God loves those for whom he suffers godforsakenness, then not even the most egregiously crude penal-substitutionary theory is in fact a punitive understanding of the atonement, for such understandings all affirm that God suffers the wrath we deserve ‘out of love’ and ‘with the intention to redeem’, just as Greg maintains. In other words, for all Piper’s or R. C. Sproul’s differences with Greg, Sproul and Piper affirm that Jesus suffers God’s wrath, experiencing the consequences of our sinful choices, ‘out of love’ and ‘in order to redeem’, just as Greg holds. But not even Greg takes this as evidence that their view is anything but punitive. Why not? Why does God’s wrath as godforsakenness experienced by Christ out of love for a few unconditionally predetermined elect constitute a punitive theory of the Cross, but Greg’s view that Jesus experiences divine wrath as godforsakenness out of love for all who are invited freely to accept Christ doesn’t count as punitive? If Greg holds that God’s loving, redemptive intentions absolve his own theory of the Cross from penal associations, on what grounds does he object to any view of the atonement being penal, for all hold that God suffers the consequences of our sin out of love in order to redeem?

What do the worst of penal views and Greg’s view of the Cross have in common then? What makes them equally, objectionably penal? It is the understanding that the Cross’s power to save is derived from the godforsakenness that transpires in God through the Father’s abandonment of the Son in judgment on sin. That one adds to this a ‘benevolent intention to redeem’ or that ‘wrath proceeds via the Father’s passive withdrawal’ (Greg) as opposed to the Father actively “doing something to” Christ (cruder penal versions) is entirely beside the point. The relevant contagion is present regardless of the finer distinctions. The notion that the “death consequences” of our choices must play out in God, between Father and Son, in order to secure the good God intends, is itself the mythological contagion that undermines the gospel’s radical message. Girard understood this fundamental insight as defining a truly non-violent and non-penal view of the Cross.

One last thought. Girard mentions Col. 2.13-15:

…having forgiven us all or trespasses, having cancelled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him.

Contemplate your way through the key verbs of the passage: “canceling the charge,” “taking it away” (or “erasing” it), and “disarming” (or “spoiling”) the powers and authorities are not the sort of things one says if the point is to say that the just consequences of sin are indeed meted out and experienced. Greg makes use of this classic Christus Victor passage as well. But it’s precisely this passage that makes Greg’s additional proposal that salvation is grounded in what transpires between Father and Son (in terms of Gods experiencing ‘divine withdrawal as wrath’) and not simply between God and ‘the powers’ that condemn, which exposes the punitive underside of Greg’s view of the Cross. The verbs (“cancel,” “erase,” “disarm”) and the scope of their effective work (‘God’ vis-à-vis ‘the Powers’ as opposed to the ‘Father’ vis-à-vis the ‘Son’) locate the saving event of the Cross in God’s enduring the full brunt of humanity’s scapegoating violence, not in God’s enduring God’s abandonment of God.

Lastly, consider this. If God forgives us without abandoning himself (which Greg holds to be true), and if the gospel presentations of the Cross unanimously reveal Christ’s innocence (which unmask the scapegoating myth), then there can be no doubt that God considers Christ to be innocent, relates to Christ throughout his suffering as innocent, treats Christ throughout as innocent, loves him as innocent, sustains him as innocent, and finally vindicates his innocence through resurrection. If we grant this much, there remains no need for a further exchange within God where God pretends anything else is the case, where the death consequences of our sin are, supposedly, experienced by God by means of the Father’s withdrawing from the Son. Don’t misunderstand me – I do not say God needn’t suffer to save us. On the contrary, he must suffer, but only because we require it, and even then God suffers our rejection of him, not the consequences which are God’s judgment of our rejecting him.

Taking it out on wrath

Godface2I’ve been enjoying a conversation with an old friend about sacred violence and the Cross and thought I’d post a portion of it here. In response to my suggestion that the Cross is not Jesus suffering the “punishment” of divine “wrath,” my friend declared, “I don’t comprehend how one can overlook so many scriptures that plainly speak of God’s anger and wrath.” Below is part of my response. I be interested in any thoughts.

What often happens is that Christians assume “Christ” and “Bible” together comprise a single, composite center from which we move outwards toward the world – interpreting and evaluating as we go. What I’m suggesting is that this is a mistake. The hermeneutical center from which we move out to assess and interpret as we go is Christ, and the Scriptures themselves are among the things that get judged and adjudicated along with all else in light of Christ. This doesn’t mean that Christians are to understand the Scriptures as just another religious text, but it does mean that the Bible does not (because it cannot) embody the character and intentions of God as does Christ. “Christ” and “Bible” are not convertible.

What difference does this make? Just this – the words the OT uses (wrath, judgment, forgive, etc.) all undergo re-evaluation in their biblical contexts in light of the event of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. The dead-and-risen Christ becomes a kind of “reset” button by which we rethink Israel’s history and theological vocabularies. Seen in light of Christ, the OT only approximates the truth that gets revealed finally in Christ. Some of the OT portrayals of God may in fact get God wrong in some respects, respects we could only possibly be in a position to understand because we now read in light of Christ’s death and resurrection.

Yes, there are many passages that describe God as “burning with rage to consume the wicked” whom “his soul hates,” God as pleased with the “sweet smelling aroma of burnt offerings” and as forgiving conditionally, God as celebrating the “dashing of babies against the rocks,” as “laughing at the wicked,” and as “feeling indignation every day, ” and God as “no longer loving” a generation of Israelites because of their sin. There is no calculus that converts these into gospel truth or even anticipations of the gospel.

There are amazing exceptions to this picture as well. God is also portrayed as caring for Ninevites (even their cattle!) in spite of Israel’s racist disregard for them, loving and forgiving unconditionally, and as being disgusted by blood sacrifice. Rgarding that the generation of Israelites described by Hoseas (9:15) as “no longer loved by God,” Lamentations (3:31) assures us that “no one is cast off by the Lord forever.” We are also told in no uncertain terms that God desires “mercy, not sacrifice.” This latter insight cannot mean God desires sacrifice but only when it’s conditioned by mercy. The point (which we only finally understand in the light of Christ’s death and resurrection) is that sacrifice adds nothing relevant to what God desires which isn’t already present in a merciful, humble, and contrite heart.

So the OT is a mixed bag. It doesn’t offer a single, unified theology on many of these fundamental questions. It too is among the things that get judged and revealed in the light of the Cross and resurrection. That means terms like “wrath,” “judgment,” and even “forgiveness” which are variously used in the OT and which we inherit from that OT worldview, have to undergo a purging, a cleansing. In the light of Christ – the quintessential revelation of the character and intentions of God – we may have to find better words or redeploy the same words with radically new meanings.

My essential point is that there is no way to draw a straight line from the OT use of the word “wrath” (as that concept was employed in the OT by Israel) to concluding what the Cross must mean in light of that term’s OT usage. This gets the interpretive order precisely backwards. It is in light of the Cross that we are compelled to assess Israel’s theological vocabularies. That such critical re-evaluation of the Bible’s own pronouncements is thinkable is not a foreign thought we have to bring in from somewhere else. This kind of re-evaluation of the Bible happens within the Bible itself (within the OT and between OT and NT).

Pieces of the penal puzzle

sacrificed-animal-clipart-7Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) is a popular understanding of how it is that Jesus’ death saves us. It views Jesus as suffering ‘instead of us’ (thus ‘substitutionary’) the just ‘punishment’ (thus ‘penal’) we deserve. That punishment is the consequences of our sins (death as well as the despair of estrangement from God).

I ran across a post of Scot McKnight’s. In it he argues that PSA is unavoidable. He offers the following five fundamental propositions as making PSA inescapable:

1. Humans sin.
2. Sin has serious, ultimate consequences before God.
3. The consequence of sin, its punishment, is death.
4. Jesus died to bear (and bear away) the consequences of sin (and sin).
5. Christians proclaim the forgiveness of sins through the death of Jesus.

The only way to avoid PSA, McKnight suggests, is through one of the following ways:

1. Believe that sin has no final consequences.
2. Eliminate the sin-bearing intentions/consequences of Jesus’ death.
3. Claim that Jesus’ death did not deal with the consequences/punishment of sin.

He concludes:

If one believes Jesus’ death forgives sin, one must explain why he had to die to forgive sins. One must see in death the consequence/punishment of sin. That is, Why did Jesus have to die to forgive sins? Hence, to claim he forgives sin by death means he has taken our place in his death and in that death absorbed the consequences/punishment of sin.

That is called penal substitution.

Several things can be said in response, the first of which might be that some items McKnight mentions require important clarification. What’s meant by “ultimate”? What’s meant by “death”? Is mortality a punishment for sin? Does ‘death’ also mean spiritual death? What’s the relationship between the Cross and God’s forgiving us? And most importantly, what determines the “penal” nature of the “consequences” we suffer due to our sin? There’s a lot in these five propositions that begs further questions.

That said, I’d like to offer some reasons for thinking that PSA can be “altogether avoided” without essentially denying that our sin has consequences which Jesus saves us from. That is, PSA can be false and it be true (1) that sin has consequences, (2) that Jesus’ death makes clear God’s intention to bear these consequences, and (3) that God in Christ does bear these consequences (albeit not as punishment). Note also that McKnight defines his conclusion into the premises, the third prop in each set.

WTB-Animal-sacrifice5

The first and perhaps most significant thing to question, indeed, the point at which PSA began to unravel for me, is the relationship between the Cross and God’s forgiveness. McKnight feels Jesus had to die to make it possible for God to forgive. I’ve pursued the question elsewhere, but I’ll just say here that we have good reasons for rejecting this belief and for concluding instead that forgiveness precedes the Cross as its motivation.

God incarnates and suffers for us because God forgives us, not so that he can forgive. Stated similarly, the Cross doesn’t make it possible for God to forgive us. Instead, God’s forgiveness of us makes the Cross possible. This opens us up to understanding the Cross in altogether non-penal terms without dismissing the despair and estrangement from God which are intrinsic consequences of sin that Jesus deals with.

A second change in perspective would be to approach the consequences of our evil by understanding these consequences in non-penal terms. That’s certainly possible. We are punished by our sins, someone said, rather than for our sins. This does amount to rejecting McKnight’s (3), but that’s to be expected since he defines “consequences” as “punishment.” That, however, is the point being contested. True – if we want to avoid penal associations altogether, we have to deny that Jesus’ death addresses the penal consequences of our sin. But that’s not to say he doesn’t address the consequences of our sin.

There certainly are intrinsic consequences to our evil, and Christ saves us from these consequences, but we needn’t understand the consequences in punitive-penal terms. If the consequences of our evil choices are intrinsic to our choosing, they’re intrinsic to us as the choosers and by definition aren’t the kind of thing that can be borne by another. We should recognize that we already suffer the intrinsic consequences of our choices. We all live the despair of not enjoying the knowledge of forgiveness and intimacy with God. Jesus doesn’t suffer these “instead of” us. He saves us from them not by experiencing them as such (i.e., not by being forsaken or cursed by God), but by making possible a relationship to God whose consequence is life and joy. The way to be saved from despair and estrangement from God is to make choices who consequences are other than despair and estrangement. So while it is true that Jesus suffers “as a consequence of” our sin, i.e., he comes to us (in part) in consequence of our evil, and we murder him in consequence of his coming, but this is not to say he suffers the consequence of our sin.

Thirdly, an important biblical theme to contemplate in this regard is the repeated emphasis in the Psalms and Prophets that reminds us that what grounds the experience of forgiveness is the simplicity of a humble and repentant heart. Blood sacrifice is simply not required by God. Humility and repentance are his concern. Several passages point out that God isn’t interested in blood sacrifice:

Ps 51.17, “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.”

Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.”

Heb 10.8, “Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them” though they were offered in accordance with the law.

The list could go on.

My own sense is that God had to work with blood sacrifice because that’s where Israel was, not because spiritual realities on God’s side of the equation require it. Consider Israel’s (evil) demand for a king. God went with it, even incorporated the monarchy into Israel’s prophetic imagination foreshadowing the Kingdom and Christ as Messiah. But it was never introduced by God into Israel’s religious traditions as an embodiment of abiding spiritual truths. Similarly, Moses permitted Jews to divorce through writing a letter of divorce. But Jesus made it clear that God never waned or endorsed it. It wasn’t his idea. He only tolerated it because of Israel’s hardheartedness. Point is, we mustn’t mistake the best use God makes of our falsehoods and misunderstandings as suggesting divine endorsement of those positions.

lambI suggest we view blood sacrifice in its entirety the same way – something Israel insisted upon as a way to relate to God which God managed through the law for the best but which has absolutely nothing to do with satisfying divine requirements for forgiveness or for making sure “somebody suffers the punishment” God requires. In the end – nobody “pays.” That’s the good news.

One could attempt to find a penal connection between Christ and the sacrificial system in places like Hebrews 10.5-7: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased. Then I said, ‘Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll—I have come to do your will, my God’.”

Does the author mean God isn’t pleased with the blood of bulls and goats but he is pleased with the blood of an innocent human being? Does Jesus end all blood sacrifice by being the biggest most satisfying blood sacrifice of them all? Or does Jesus end all blood sacrifice by letting the sacrificial system exhaust itself upon himself in order to expose that system as failed and bankrupt? In the first sense, Jesus saves us “because” of the inherent efficacy of sacrifice; God just needed to find the right sacrifice. In the latter sense, Jesus saves us “in spite of” sacrifice. There’s saving efficacy in the Cross, yes, but only in the sense that God endures the full force of the sacrificial system – not because he requires it.

Take Gal 3.13 for example. We have every reason to believe God did not in fact curse Jesus, nor is God of the opinion that whoever hangs on a tree is cursed by him. That is Israel’s false belief, but God gives himself to it (allowing it to exhaust its resources on him). But assuming it is not true that whoever hangs on a tree is cursed by God, how can God demonstrate this to be a false belief? How can God demonstrate that he doesn’t need or require blood sacrifice in the slightest? He demonstrates this by hanging on a tree without being cursed. So Christ “becomes a curse” for us in the sense that he is treated by us in all the ways we identify with being cursed by God, not because we’re right in believing God to curse the innocent victims we hang on trees, but precisely because we’re wrong, and so that we can be proved wrong, to have ever thought so.

So Heb 10.5-7’s “sacrifice and offering you did not desire” is true. But where then does “so a body you have prepared for me” come in? Not to introduce a source of blood that God is interested in. On the contrary. It is to demonstrate the lengths to which God will go to demonstrate how antithetical blood sacrifice is to God. How can God get it across to Israel that he’s not interested in blood sacrifice whatsoever? The answer: by submitting himself (“a body you have prepared for me”) to our sacrificial machinery – antithetical to him in every way – and then rising from its death to expose once and for all its failure and impotence.

Contra McKnight, we can affirm with full seriousness the consequences of sin, the divine intention to deal with them, and that Christ finally deals with them without understanding salvation in penal terms at all.